There are times in the course of our lives, when circumstances impel us to talk to God directly, to pray from the depths of our souls and to express our thoughts and emotions freely, outside the context of formal prayer. We feel the need to pray to God in a straightforward, personal, intimate manner.
When attempting to do so, we experience one of the most difficult aspects of personal prayer; formulating a starting point. If one is seeking to express themselves to God directly from the heart, the hardest part of the process is knowing where exactly to begin.
The true beginning of prayer is not knowing what to say. If one is coming to stand before God, what is there to say? What can we tell God, that God does not already know? Faced with the realization of how vast the universe is, we are often overwhelmed and speechless. How much more so, are we overcome with awe and humbled, when we approach the Creator of the Universe?
In human perception, the distance between God and man can often appear to be so vast, that God seems unapproachable or remote. Under such conditions, prayer would seem to be of no value nor of any purpose. One cannot get close to God, if God is so distant as to be felt to be beyond reach. This view of our relationship to God is really not workable. If one clings to the perception that God is remote and unreachable, there is really nowhere to go.
Prayer is best understood in different terms. Prayer, in Jewish tradition, is not meant to be recited per se. Rather, prayers are meant to be expressed. Prayer should not be relegated to mere verbal explanation or to the reciting of doctrine. True prayer is the meditation of the heart. Prayer, in its essence, is affirmation of our intimate relationship with God.
In the days when the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, worship was the act of sacrifice. In acknowledgement for what God had provided, or in acceptance of God’s Will, or in admission of a mistake, one would give something back to God. The offering could be the first fruits of the field. It could be a harvest offering, part of the bounty one received. What one offered to God was one’s most prized possession. One gave something of himself or herself.
The sacrifices were prescribed in detail by biblical law. God set down quite a number of Mitzvot regarding the exact nature of each of the sacrifices. The prayers recited were supplemental to the act of offering the sacrifice. Prayer was left up to the individual to express. King David wrote prayers and psalms to God from his own personal experience. The Levites in the Temple composed the liturgy themselves. The prophets and seers created songs and poems to God, throughout the Biblical period. As occasions arose, and the people were overcome by joy and thanksgiving, prayer was created spontaneously. This tradition extends all the way back to Moses and Miriam.
True prayer is the expression of heartfelt emotion. It is our dialogue with God. Whether we choose to put our hearts and souls into the prayers of the traditional liturgy, or whether we create our own, whether we meditate on the words of others or put our feelings into the wordless melodies of Niggunim, the same objective is being accomplished. We are reconnecting with God, through emotional reaffirmation.
We are affirming our essence as created beings by allowing ourselves to express our sense of self, our sense of thanksgiving and our sense of joy. We are open to communicating our exhilaration as created essences, directly to the Creator. By opening our hearts, we sing, we articulate, we rejoice and we connect with that which is at the heart of all existence, God’s Love and God’s Presence in the World.
To pray fully, is to allow the soul to open up and to reaffirm its connection with God, by honoring the experiences of one’s life. It is in the day to day world that we learn about ourselves. It is in the mundane realm of everyday life, that we experience joy and sadness, hope and disappointment, success and failure. What exalts these events and makes them important, are two factors; how we understand them and how we express them.
By expressing our feelings and emotions to God directly and by articulating our needs and our perceptions, we spiritualize our experience and elevate it to the level of holiness. We exalt our life, by elevating our life experience to the level of communication with God. That is why prayer followed sacrifice. From the doing, comes the understanding. From the understanding comes the joy. From the joy come the exaltation and the gratitude.
When we can drop the ego, and fall back to the point of true humility, when we are not too proud or too stubborn to talk to God, directly, heart to heart, then we give real meaning to our lives. Through true prayer, that which is heartfelt and consciously focused, we spiritualize our earthly existence. We transcend the plane of mundane consciousness and ascend to the higher realms of being, when we choose to live our lives as dialogues with God.
To achieve communion with God, we must understand and offer prayer in its truest form, as emotional affirmation and as dialogue with God. We need to structure our lives as perpetual expressions of that interaction, which is the essence of prayer, thereby elevating the experiential content and spiritual awareness of our earthly existence. Let our prayers be like rivers, that well up from deep beneath the surface and create their own paths as they grow and extend toward their source.
Rabbi Steven Fisdel